Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

Police make three arrests after testing old sexual assault kits

In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.

Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.

After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.

***

In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.

So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.

The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.

Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively. 

“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”

Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”

Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.

Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too. 

***

Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.

Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks. 

After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.

Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital. 

“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.

“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”

***

The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.

“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”

Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”

Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.

Sorority sisters and partners in law enforcement: Deberry and Davis discuss sexual assault

District Attorney Satana Deberry always wears a red beaded bracelet with a little white elephant. On its own, this might seem like an odd choice for a progressive Democrat. But Saturday, as a sea of red sweaters, Greek letters, and all forms of elephant decor filled the conference room in the Durham County Human Services Complex, the bracelet made a lot more sense.

The elephant is the unofficial symbol of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which Deberry and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis are both alumnae. The sorority’s Durham Alumnae Chapter hosted a panel discussion called “Sister to Sister: A Talk on Sexual Assault.” The discussion was moderated by fellow sorority sister Jasmine McGhee, who is special deputy attorney general and director of the Public Protection Section at the North Carolina Department of Justice. 

Jasmine McGhee (left) moderates a panel discussion with Police Chief C.J. Davis (center) and District Attorney Satana Deberry (right). | Photo by Erin Williams, The 9th Street Journal

Deberry lauded her sorority sisters and fellow panelists for their accomplishments, and emphasized the significance of them holding those positions as women of color.

“The chief and I are unicorns almost,” Deberry said. “It is rare that you are in a jurisdiction in which the chief of police and the district attorney are not just women, but black women.” 

She said that this is particularly significant in a conversation about sexual assault in a southern state, where sexual politics have been deeply intertwined with racial discrimination. The history of the American South is rife with the sexual exploitation of black women – free and enslaved – and their inability to access the protections of the criminal justice system. Deberry emphasized that the South is also a place where false accusations of sexual assault have been used to justify the lynching of black men.

Davis said, “Being an African American female in this work I think is quite relevant. I think we are lucky when we have African-American women who don’t just know what they are doing, but they can also make their work personal.”

According to Deberry, black women today are typically those who pay bail, visit people in jail or prison– and are increasingly incarcerated themselves. 

“To the extent that the criminal justice system has a customer, it’s black women,” she said. 

“But the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that black and brown women are also the people most likely to be victimized,” Deberry said. “And we are the least likely, especially when we are children, to be believed.”

In 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Durham Public School students, black high school students were nearly twice as likely as white students to report being raped; Latinx students were almost three times as likely.

The audience included educators, social workers, public health advocates, and survivors of sexual assault. Their questions ranged from what to do in situations when a child is sexually assaulted to how immigrants who are living in the country without legal permission should handle an assault.

Deberry responded that when survivors come through her office, she will not ask about their citizenship status. “It does not matter one bit to us,” she said.

Another audience member asked about the statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault in North Carolina. The panelists said that, unlike other states, there isn’t one. 

Before ending the talk, the panelists emphasized this issue concerns men and boys, too. 

“We talk about believing women and girls, but also talk to your sons,” Deberry said. While more than one in three women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence, almost one in four men have too, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

While the audience was mostly women, there were some men too — most notably Clarence Birkhead, the Durham County Sheriff. He was invited to say a few words to introduce the panel and he stayed until the end. “It is a really awesome team of law enforcement officials that you all have here in Durham, with me being right here with them working hand in hand,” he said. 

As the panel concluded, Deberry emphasized that her office is working with the Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department to address sexual assault. The Special Victims Unit of her office now works closely with Chief Davis’ Special Victims Unit. 

“That has not generally been how it works,” Deberry said. “But that trust goes a long way in getting your cases dealt with.”

In the Clerk’s Courtroom, a tender scene of love and the law

Attorney Rob Pochapsky leans over to whisper in Makeai Respass’s ear. It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and the sun is shining on them from a window in the Clerk’s Courtroom at the Durham courthouse.

“Are you nervous at all?” Pochapsky asks. 

“No,” Makeai says. She has short brown hair and wears glasses with plastic frames that are somewhere between purple and blue. 

“You know that (Makeai) doesn’t understand what she’s saying, right?” her adoptive mother Julia Respass tells Pochapsky. 

“I presume people have more going on upstairs than they show,” Pochapsky replies.

Because she has turned 18, Makeai is now responsible to manage her finances, property, and medical affairs. But she has autism, PTSD, Schizoaffective disorder, and seizures, so her mom has petitioned that she’s not capable to manage those affairs. 

Pochapsky speaks softly to Makeai, explaining that the clerk of court will determine whether she is competent to manage her own affairs and whether her mom should become her legal guardian.

“(The clerk’s) name is Archie Smith,” Pochapsky says. “He’s a good man. What he does is always fair and right. If anyone gets yelled at today, it’s going to be me.”

But no one yells in court today. It’s a tender family affair.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Smith oversees these little-known incompetency hearings. They occur in a room the size of an elementary school classroom with no bailiff, no court reporter, and usually only one attorney. 

They’re not announced on an online calendar and even Smith said he doesn’t know who will be in court until shortly before the hearing. 

Smith, the clerk of Superior Court, oversees money flow in and out of the Durham courts and serves as judge for special proceedings including guardianship, adoptions and foreclosures. A jovial man, he has a circular face and round cheeks on each side of his white moustache. 

The guardianship cases – he rules on about 150 every year – range from amicable and tender, to tense and contentious. If Smith deems a person incompetent, he then determines who will become their guardian for financial or personal matters. 

Some are elderly people with dementia. Others are referred from the Duke Trauma Center or the Department of Social Services. And some are people with autism who come once they reach adulthood, such as Makeai.

There’s a lot on the line: Who will be responsible for the ward’s property, their medical decisions, their finances?

‘Sword and shield’

Pochapsky turns to Makeai with a last note of encouragement before the proceedings. 

“We’re both Leos. You know what that means? That means we’re smart, we’re strong,” Pochapsky says. 

It’s not clear if she understands the reference to her astrological sign.

Smith walks into the room and sits behind his bench in front of an audience of only four.

“Today is the 31st. It’s Halloween!” he says, to diffuse any tension in the room.

In these cases, it’s up to an attorney, or guardian ad litem, to investigate whether someone is competent, who should become their guardian, and what that guardian’s responsibilities should be. Today, that’s Pochapsky. 

“You are her sword and shield,” Smith reminds Pochapsky.

For Pochapsky, that means he investigates potential guardians to make sure the court appoints one who will protect Makeai and won’t exploit their guardianship responsibilities. 

When the court declares someone incompetent, they lose civil rights and freedom. They may lose their privilege to drive, file a court case, or own a firearm. Pochapsky wants people like Makeai to retain as many rights as they can handle.

“Civil rights are something most people do not want to give up and shouldn’t have to unless it’s necessary. The objective is to make sure that the court orders whatever level of guardianship is necessary, but not any more,” he says after the hearing.

He also wants to make sure the guardianship responsibilities fall into the right hands. With Makeai, her mom was an easy answer. But sometimes it’s not as clear who should be the guardian — especially when it comes to finances. 

Family dynamics and exploitation

In some cases, Smith watches families argue over guardianship. 

“Quite often, there will be confusion as to who — siblings, children, whomever — should have control of the incompetenet ward’s finances,” Smith says. “Every possible permutation of family dynamics comes into play. Families are not as depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings — the stylized images of the peaceful, happy family.”

Pochapsky says the biggest fights often involve inheritance. 

And Smith says that sometimes the finances end up in the wrong hands. Although he can’t predict exploitation, he’s not surprised when it happens. 

“It’s the human condition. There are scoundrels out there.” 

If there isn’t a family member who could be a responsible guardian of the person’s finances, Smith can give the role to a public guardian, someone who is hired to manage the person’s financial affairs.

Emotional spectrum

Smith says the guardianship process has to be compassionate.

“Some people I know are sharp as tacks, and they’re almost 100. But for most of us, unfortunately, we begin to decline with time. It’s our duty as human beings to love the ones who have lived with us and are starting to suffer.” 

Likewise, the process protects people like Makeai who are on the autism spectrum.

Pochapsky says he strives to make sure the people he represents are comfortable. His role requires as much empathy as it does lawyering. 

“I’ve had a lot of cases that involve people on the autism spectrum. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like being inside their head when they’re sitting in that courtroom. Although it looks rather innocuous to us, it’s gotta be frightening to them,” he says. 

In the courtroom, after discussing the guardianship logistics, Smith looks over to Makeai. 

“All right Makeai, is it all right to have your mom be your guardian?” he says. 

She nods her head yes. 

In a chair to the right, Julia Respass slides off her glasses and wipes away tears. Makeai looks at her mother intently and walks over. Julia Respass leans down to tie her daughter’s shoe, and then they hug. 

A tale of two cities: Lessons for Durham about ShotSpotter

A gunshot goes off.  

In many neighborhoods, no one calls the police. 

But in more than 100 cities, the sound is picked up by audio sensors, and computers quickly triangulate the location of the sound. 

Meanwhile, in a room in California, audio experts sit behind several large monitors that are filled with red and green maps. They monitor the alerts from the sensors and, if they determine the sound was indeed gunfire, they quickly alert the local police. 

The whole process takes approximately 60 seconds, according to ShotSpotter, the company that sells the technology. That enables officers to respond quickly and – city officials hope – reduce the likelihood of injuries and further shootings.

In June, the Durham City Council voted down a measure to implement ShotSpotter, citing insufficient data about the service and other budgetary priorities. But after a spate of recent shootings, Council Member Mark Anthony Middleton is urging them to reconsider.

“Kids in Durham are being trained to jump in the bathtub when they hear gunfire,” he said. “They’re getting soldiering skills at eight or nine years old.” 

As Durham deliberates, Middleton and others can learn from the experiences of two North Carolina cities with very different experiences with ShotSpotter. In Charlotte, officials decided ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the money. But, in Wilmington, officials like the system so much they want to expand it.

Charlotte: “Closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective”

In 2012, Charlotte had high hopes for ShotSpotter.

The city was about to host the Democratic National Convention and wanted to be prepared for potential gun violence.

Patrick Cannon, then the mayor pro tem, told the City Council that ShotSpotter was a smart investment.

“I know we don’t like talking about guns … but having a system for the long-term is something I believe is really important to this community,” he said.  

At the time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bought a contract covering two square miles in the center of downtown, only a fraction of the department’s 473-square mile jurisdiction. Cannon said the technology might make the city safer because of its ability to alert police officers in real-time.

But ShotSpotter didn’t live up to its promise. In 2016, the City decided to abandon its $160,000 contract with ShotSpotter. 

Police said ShotSpotter often didn’t result in arrests. Another problem: false alarms, which strained police time and resources.

Crystal Cody, Charlotte’s Public Safety Technology Director, said that ShotSpotter solved a problem that Charlotte didn’t have.

“The premise of the technology is to be alerted to gunfire in the absence of someone calling 911,” she said. “But, in our city, we’ve found that primarily citizens call 911. We are already on route to it, just about as soon as we get the information from ShotSpotter.” 

ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the investment, said Cody. The city canceled the contract.

“We have found that closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective,” said Cody.

Wilmington: “You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now”

Wilmington has had a much better experience. After using ShotSpotter for nearly nine years, the city recently signed a contract to expand services with the company. 

In Wilmington, ShotSpotter covers a six-mile radius. Officials used data to determine neighborhoods that had high incidents of gun violence, which decided the locations of the sensors. 

Deputy Police Chief Alejandra Sotelo said she’s pleased with the technology because it speeds up the process of dispatching police officers. 

When people call the police, it slows the process. A ShotSpotter alert can often be faster than a 911 call, which needs to go through a dispatcher  Even a one- or two-minute delay can mean life or death for victims of violent crime, Sotelo said. 

It’s so good, Sotelo said, that some people might trust the system a little too much.

 “One of the things we have noticed since we’ve implemented this technology is that people often don’t call 911, which is concerning. They think ShotSpotter will just pick it up,” she said.

Wilmington has seen a reduction in crime in the last few years. “Our overall violent crime numbers have gone down, and this year we’re proud of a record low,” said Sotelo. She thinks this might be correlated with the implementation of ShotSpotter. 

Sotelo said ShotSpotter doesn’t need to generate arrests in order to be effective. 

“We use it as a tool to get to the scene and gather evidence quicker. You still have to go through the investigative process” to make arrests, Sotelo said.

The Wilmington Police Department liked ShotSpotter so much the city has expanded its use. As of this month, it was the first in the nation to complete training for the ShotSpotter Missions tool, a data analytics program that forecasts crime and preemptively dispatches police.

“You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now,“ she said.

Sotelo said she would like to see a system of cameras integrated with ShotSpotter. Video footage would help identify victims and suspects, something the current tool does not do. 

As for Durham, Sotelo recommends the city do its research. “I could tell you how great it is, and I do think it’s a great, but make sure you go to other cities. Come to Wilmington, see how it works and what officers think about it.”

Above, a screenshot of a ShotSpotter display. Photo from ShotSpotter

Durham accepts $1 million to clear sexual assault kit backlog

On Nov. 4, the Durham Police Department secured $1 million from the federal government to help clear the city’s sexual assault kit backlog.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council approved the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. Since 2015, SAKI grants have been used to fund overburdened crime labs, test over 47,000 sexual assault kits across 35 states, and even help catch one of the deadliest serial killers in U.S. history.

Now, the Durham Police Department will use the grant to tackle its backlog of 1,711 sexual assault kits — the most of any jurisdiction across North Carolina.

***

In 2017, the North Carolina State Crime Lab began counting all untested sexual assault kits across the state, joining 36 other states that had audited their inventories. It discovered the largest backlog of any state in the country: 15,160 untested kits.

Nowhere in North Carolina was the problem larger than in Durham, where police found 1,711 kits from assaults dating back as far as 1988.

“It came as a shock that Durham had so many,” said Charlene Reiss, the Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator at the Durham Crisis Response Center.

The State Crime Lab noted that some of those untested kits may have been resolved in court or marked as “unfounded,” which means that police believed a crime didn’t occur. The rest of the kits — those that were never given a reason for remaining on the shelf — are marked as “other”.

Not only did Durham police find the largest backlog of untested kits, but they also harbored one of the largest portions of “other” kits — those that remained untested for no given reason.

Why, especially in a city as progressive as Durham, did sexual assault kits pile up?

Some factors were outside their control, police wrote in the 2018 SAKI grant application. The State Crime Lab changed their policies about which sexual assault kits were eligible to be tested, causing confusion among officers. And some of the kits in Durham police’s possession were connected to cases already resolved in court.

But police also found that some investigators didn’t know a sexual assault kit could be submitted. Other officers “overlooked sending it,” according to the grant application.

Those familiar with the backlog hesitate to blame police. “There are definitely things that fell through the cracks,” Reiss said. “But for many years, the State Crime Lab was so backed up that it took years to get results back.”

That’s when the State Crime Lab asked police jurisdictions to stop sending consent cases, or cases where both parties admit that sex did occur, according to Reiss.

“Testing that kit wouldn’t help in that particular case,” Reiss said. “In those situations, it doesn’t come down to proving whether or not sex happened; it comes down to proving consent. So a lot of things on the shelf in Durham were consent cases, and they were told not to send those.”

Now, as part of the effort to clear North Carolina’s backlog, the lab is asking police to send all their untested kits. Durham, with the support of its SAKI grant, is beginning to do that.

***

Durham police, prosecutors, and victim advocates agree that to tackle a backlog this large, they need help.

“Our office is already understaffed,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an Assistant District Attorney. “Right now, the older cases that are coming through — we’re just adding them on top of our duties. It’s too much.”

Each sexual assault kit costs about $700 to test, according to the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. With Durham’s 1,711 kits, that puts the cost of testing the backlog at nearly $1.2 million.

But that estimate doesn’t include the cost of the investigative work that often happens after testing.

“With such a large backlog … the DPD does not have the resources to investigate these backlogged cases and also focus on current cases,” the SAKI grant application says.

That’s why Durham police are using the grant to create a new investigative team: the Cold Case Unit.

The Cold Case Unit will have two full-time investigators dedicated to reopening sexual assault cases and a bilingual witness assistant to support victims through the justice system.

SAKI grant money is also going to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which will fund a new advocate to assist with calling victims. The District Attorney’s office will also hire a full-time prosecutor to bring cold case sexual assaults to trial.

District Attorney Satana Deberry is ready to reprioritize sexual assault in her office.

“Part of the reason that sexual assault is underreported is because people don’t feel comfortable coming to the justice system,” Deberry said. “It’s important for us to signal to the community that we take these things seriously.”

“We spend a lot of time talking about the violence in our community, but often we don’t talk about the violence against women and children,” she added.

The District Attorney’s office is now prosecuting three cold cases in which sexual assault kits were tested after years of sitting in the backlog. With the new hires from the SAKI grant, they expect more charges to come and a new energy behind the process.

“I think everybody in Durham was surprised when they did the inventory,” Reiss said. “But things have changed.”

Deberry agreed. “Now we’re cleaning up what this system may have let sit for a while.”

At the law school, the D.A. talks about law school

“Yeah, law school sucks a little bit, right?” Satana Deberry said to a room full of Duke law students. Her audience chuckled. 

The Durham district attorney spoke Thursday to Social Justice Lawyering, a class co-taught by Anne Gordon and Jesse McCoy, attorneys with backgrounds in public interest law. 

A graduate of Duke Law School herself, Deberry admitted that she told her parents after her first reading assignment that she was bound to flunk out. “Every word in those 10 pages was English, but together they made no sense,” she said.

The students she was addressing have experienced their own challenges in adapting to law school. 

Professor Gordon said that many wrote personal essays about how law school is much different than they expected. They entered with goals of pursuing justice and making a difference, but they feel “social pressure, pressures even from the (school) administration and faculty” to choose less civic-minded paths.

The district attorney said she could relate to that.

“Duke has a certain corporate bent that you may or may not know before you get here,” Deberry said. She also mentioned that the lack of diversity in student aspirations corresponds to a lack of diversity in the student body.  “When I was here – I don’t know how it is now – but there were only 12 black kids in my class,” Deberry said. 

While the Social Justice Lawyering class was racially diverse, Duke Law’s student body is actually not much different than 25 years ago when Deberry graduated. One student said there are only 16 or 17 black students in her graduating class of 223, while another, Ana Maganto Ramirez, said the numbers are about the same for Latinx students.

Deberry encouraged the students not to give up on their dreams of pursuing social justice. “Just be committed to whatever goal you set for yourself,” she said. 

“For me, I ended up in law school because I thought the Constitution was the most amazing thing I had ever read,” Deberry said. “I was like, ‘What?! We were guaranteed these rights? They are self evident? What? Who ever thought of that?’” 

She said she has dedicated her career to protecting those rights.

“My unwavering commitment has always been to justice,” she said. It sounds corny, but that is what I decided to do when I was corny. That is the benefit of being a kid. You’re like, ‘I want to uphold the Constitution of the United States doggonit!”

In the photo above, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry speaks to students at the Duke Law School. Photo by Erin Williams – The 9th Street Journal

Was there negligence when Durham man slipped at pizza restaurant?

Holding two salads, James Walker headed toward the exit of Pizza Inn on April 2, 2018. He didn’t make it. He slipped on a clear substance and fell onto the floor. 

“I saw stars, had a metallic taste in my mouth and sat for a few minutes before getting up,” Walker, 59, of Durham, wrote in an affidavit. 

His fall led to lower back inflammation and a bulging disc, Walker wrote. It eventually aggravated his pre-existing hip condition enough to require right hip replacement, he said. 

Walker, general manager of Elite Flooring, sued the Pizza Inn on North Duke Street for negligence. 

At a hearing before Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson this month, Pizza Inn’s attorney Stephanie Anderson said it would be impossible for Walker to prove the restaurant was negligent. For him to win the case, he’d have to prove that the restaurant was responsible for the liquid spill, that employees knew about it, or, at least, that they should’ve known.

“Nobody knew how long the water had been there, no one knew where it came from. Someone could have spilled water on the floor two seconds before he fell,” Anderson said.

But Walker’s attorney Lauri Klein argued that even if Pizza Inn had no knowledge of the spill, the restaurant’s cleaning protocols were shoddy enough to suggest negligence. 

“They don’t train people to look for spills. There is nothing about inspection. Hourly, two-hourly: They don’t have a policy for that,” Klein said. “They’re passing the buck off to the plaintiff.”

She took out a photo of the restaurant and pointed to a hand sanitizer dispenser near the salad bar and hot bar. Klein said it was probable hand sanitizer or food would fall on the floor throughout the day and suggested that Pizza Inn should inspect the floor more frequently. 

Klein wanted a jury to hear the case. She thought it could help decide some material facts the parties hadn’t yet agreed on: Was the floor actually wet? Did the restaurant cause the spill? Did it know the floor was wet? Was Walker injured?

But after listening to the attorneys, Hudson determined that Walker had no case against the restaurant. The case is now closed and won’t go to a jury.

Automated reminders aim to reduce no-shows for court

In 2017, the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center spearheaded an automated notification system that sends people reminders about their court dates via text, email, or phone. Two years later, the initiative has enrolled more than 8,200 people.

The project was launched in an effort to reduce the number of people who are charged with failing to appear in court in Durham County.

At the CJRC, James Stuit, gang reduction manager, and Beth Steenberg, quality assurance and data integrity manager, have made it a priority to investigate this issue. The reasons why people don’t show up to court vary based on the individual, they said. Often, people forget their court dates, or they do not have transportation to get to court. 

“I think the two biggest reasons were that either they forgot, or they were hoping the system forgot,” Steenberg said based on prior conversations with justice-involved individuals. The automated notification system tries to address both of those issues. By receiving direct contact from the justice system, people may be less likely to slip through the cracks.

Signing up is simple. People with charges in Durham County can go to the program’s website and register for the alerts. They can also register through a paper form at their first appearance, jail booking, or pre-trial service. The CJRC seeks to maintain participant privacy and has made it easy for people to sign up anonymously. 

After the participant selects which methods of contact they prefer, the technology takes care of the rest. Before their next court appearance, the participant will receive a phone call, email, or text with the details of their appointment. Two reminders are issued: the first alert is sent three days before the court appearance and the second is sent the day before the person’s court date.

As of 2019, the program has upwards of 8,200 total enrollments. Last year, approximately half of the participants were registered during first appearances, while just under a quarter signed up online.

People who have used the program said that it has helped them stay organized. While it has been useful, participants have also discussed the need for additional information in the messages, such as parking location or courtroom numbers. 

The CJRC has partnered with Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight and  Durham’s Innovation Team to implement the project. In 2018, the Center for Advanced Hindsight launched an experiment to incorporate behavioral science into the wording of the notifications. The researchers wanted to see whether a message that discussed the consequences of not showing up and nudged individuals to plan for their court day were more effective. The different message styles were compared across texts, emails, and phone calls.

Joseph Sherlock, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, said that the study only noticed an effect among participants who opted to receive texts. There was an approximately 2% decrease in charges for failing to appear in court for people who received the new message style via text when compared with the old message model.

“I think this may in part be due to limited attention,” Sherlock said, explaining that participants may be more willing to pay attention to the content in a text reminder just because it is shorter.

“We are what we would call cognitive misers. We go through life trying to minimize the amount that we have to process,” he said. 

One of the biggest challenges of the program has been collecting data to evaluate its impact. The CJRC has found it tough to determine whether the automated notification system has actually reduced rates of no-shows in Durham County.

Court appearances are still recorded by-hand on stacks of paper that are kept at the courthouse. Without a digital system to view this court data, analyzing it is laborious.

“We were polishing a technology dimension when in other places it didn’t even exist. So, it was like putting the icing on the cake before we even had the cake,” said Sherlock. 

The reminder program has had a steady number of monthly enrollments. The CJRC hopes to expand the program to more participants in Durham and add more features to the technology.

Sherlock thinks that it should be easier for citizens to interact with the government, especially the justice system.

“There’s an argument that we should be making government service use generally as simple as possible, particularly for those who are time or money scarce,” he said. “When we make it difficult for them, it is a huge tax for them because their bandwidth is already stretched.”

A courthouse moment: ‘Tuck the sweatshirt!’

Phillip Williams might have seen the sign.

It was hanging off the door Williams used to enter Courtroom 4D. “Pull your pants up and tuck in your shirts,” it said in Comic Sans. “If you are not dressed appropriately your case WILL NOT BE HEARD…”

The sign outside Courtroom 4D.

If he saw the sign, he didn’t follow its rules. When his turn came to face District Court Judge Brian Wilks, Williams ambled to the center of the room, a pink sweatshirt hanging untucked on his lanky frame, boxers peeking over his jeans.

The bailiff took one look at Williams and heaved a long, loud sigh.

“Out,” he grumbled, gesturing for Williams to leave the courtroom, fix his appearance, and then return. Williams gave a half shrug, grabbing distractedly at his unfastened red belt and walking back into the hallway. 

When Williams strolled back in, he’d fulfilled half the requirements on the sign: the red belt was tighter around his waist, the boxers now safely tucked beneath jeans. “Straight?” he asked.

The bailiff wasn’t satisfied.

“OUT!” he shouted at Williams, directing him back into the hallway, eyes wide in disbelief. “Tuck the sweatshirt!” 

The courtroom erupted in giggles. Judge Wilks rested his head on his knuckles.

“Ahh,” Williams turned around for his second try, stumbling to the door of the courtroom as he shoved his pink sweatshirt into his jeans. He returned to the dias looking uncomfortable, a stray rumple of sweatshirt spilling over his belt.

The courtroom chuckles subsided as Judge Wilks leveled his gaze at Williams, who rocked from foot to foot, waiting for his scolding. 

“Man!” the judge suddenly exclaimed. “This is no fashion statement!”

Williams stopped rocking. 

“I guarantee you, if you see me not in this robe, off this bench, I won’t have my shirt tucked in!” the Judge joked. “Guarantee! ‘Cause it’s not cool!”

There came the wave of giggles again – muffled laughs into shirt collars, hearty guffaws from the back, and even a snort from Williams’ attorney. 

But the judge said there was a good reason for the rule on courtroom attire.

“The climate we live in these days… you never can tell what people got,” he said. “I’ve watched the safety video, and no lie – a gentleman as slim as you are, right? He had on a sweatshirt, and he pulled out about 19 guns and knives from around his waist. He even had a shotgun down his pants!”

At that image, two ladies in the front bursted into laughter, shoulder-to-shoulder in chuckles.

“See, if something pops off in this courtroom, I can dive behind my desk,” the Judge mimed bending over. “But that’s not gonna protect you all

“My job, and the deputies’ job, is to protect you. And to protect everybody that, unfortunately, has to come into this courtroom.

Back to business. “So,” he turned to look at Williams, “This is a motion to continue?”

Elsewhere in the courtroom, several other defendants waiting their turn before the judge quickly but quietly tucked in their shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.

Judge tosses ‘missing’ gold and other evidence from Bishop case

Some of the most tantalizing evidence in Durham’s most sensational homicide case – the “missing” gold, the “suspicious” internet searches and statements that were supposedly contradictory – has been struck by a Superior Court judge.

In a previously unreported filing in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his father, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. on Oct. 8 detailed which evidence will be tossed because the lead investigator’s statements to get in search warrants were false or were in “reckless disregard of the truth.” Hudson made an initial ruling in September but had not specified the evidence until this ruling.

In the new filing, Hudson sharply criticized lead investigator Tony Huelsman, even accusing him of “invent[ing] facts.”

“Investigator Huelsman repeatedly chose whatever statements he could cite to support his claims of suspicious circumstances to establish probable cause for the search warrants he sought while disregarding the evidence he examined and himself obtained which revealed the statements he cited were false or materially misleading,” Hudson wrote in the order detailing evidence to be suppressed. 

Prosecutors have moved to appeal this order, according to court documents.  

Bishop has been charged with murdering his father, Bill Bishop, after he says he found him April 18, 2018, with a dog leash around his neck and the family dog, Winston, still attached. 

Here’s some of the key evidence that will be tossed according to Hudson’s order:. 

“Missing gold” 

Hudson’s rebuke of Huelsman was strongest in his “attitude toward truth and falsity” surrounding the “missing gold.” 

In applications for search warrants, Huelsman claimed that a purchase order showed Alexander’s father had more than $450,000 in gold bars. He also alleged Alexander and William Bishop’s ex-wife, Sharon Bishop, had taken the gold. 

One problem: that purchase order showed William sold the gold in 2016, not bought it. 

“Investigator Huelsman saw the dates on the invoices and the purchase order, saw that William Bishop sold…the gold…in 2016…and chose to omit that information to make his false averments of ‘missing gold’,” Hudson wrote. 

Many Alexander Bishop statements, including ‘He felt relieved that his father was gone’

In “all of” of Huelsman’s applications to get search warrants, he claimed that Alexander Bishop wanted to talk with the EMS supervisor “alone and away from the police,” according to Hudson’s filing. 

He also claimed that Alexander had told the EMS supervisor that “he wasn’t going to be upset about his father dying.” 

Those statements are now gone. Why? They weren’t real, Hudson wrote. 

What Alexander really said, per the filing: He had merely wanted to “speak with him in private” and that “he feels bad that he doesn’t necessarily want him to live” and “explained that he will not be acting appropriately.”

Another key statement gone: Alexander’s apparently “contradictory” statements about where he found his father. 

Huelsman had claimed that Sharon Bishop had said that Alexander had found William on the floor when officers had found him in the chair. Reality check: Huelsman omitted that Alexander told first responders and an officer that he had discovered his father in a chair, not on the floor, Hudson wrote. 

“Huelsman omitted…Alexander’s statements that he had found his father in the chair….to suggest falsely that Alexander was hiding the truth about what happened to his father,” Hudson wrote. 

One other major statement (that made its way into the autopsy report): Huelsman had claimed that Alexander had said the dog leash was “wrapped around his father’s neck three times.” 

The catch: Huelsman had reviewed body cam footage in which Alexander said he didn’t “know how many times” the leash had been wrapped around his father’s neck, Hudson wrote. 

‘Suspicious’ internet searches

In search warrant applications for Sharon Bishop’s home and Alexander’s computer, Huelsman had described “suspicious” search history on Alexander’s cellphone after his father’s death. 

Those included searches for “financial information, how to calculate the value of an estate, the value of the price of gold per ounce, and how to transfer bank accounts after death.” In search warrants after these, Huelsman made the same allegations, but cut a sentence making clear that Alexander had made these searches after Bill died. 

Huelsman “intentionally deleted the sentence regarding the timing of the searches,” Hudson wrote. 

“Huelsman’s material omission was made knowingly in order to suggest falsely that Alexander had made these searches prior to William Bishop’s death, thereby providing evidence of a motive for premeditated murder,” Hudson wrote. 

Alexander had also searched for “3 Ways to Deal With the Death of a Loved One” and  “Key Financial Steps to Take After A Loved One Dies.” 

(Photo above: Judge Orlando F. Hudson at the hearing on the Bishop evidence in September. | Photo by Cameron Beach)